A new documentary called Alive Inside explores the healing power of music. The film, which premiers this week in New York City, looks at the mysterious way music functions inside our brains and our lives.

Alive Inside follows Dan Cohen, executive director of the non-profit Music and Memory, as he brings iPods to a nursing home. The transformation in barely responsive, seemingly lost patients was remarkable. As seen in the clip below, the music worked like a jolt of electricity for patients, transporting them back in time and even allowing them to speak energetically after the music had ended.

“Music gives me the feeling of love.”

Alive Inside follows the “awakening” that occurs when people suffering from memory loss and Alzheimer’s are given music they have a strong emotional connection to, often music they grew up with. In the above clip, Henry is barely responsive before one of his caretakers puts headphones on him and starts up one of his favorite tunes. Almost instantly, we see Henry swaying from side to side and singing, his eyes wide open.

“The philosopher Kant once called music the ‘quickening art.’ And Henry is being quickened, he’s being brought to life,” says Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author of Musicophilia, who is featured in the documentary. “Music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience. Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring with it memory.” Furthermore, Sacks explains, “music brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”

When an interviewer asks Henry, “What does music do to you?” Henry responds without missing a beat, “It gives me the feeling of love… I figure right now the world needs to come into music.”

Music and Memory is one of many organizations working to improve people’s lives through the therapeutic properties of music. A growing number of studies show the promise of various music interventions in alleviating pain and treating neurological, psychological, and developmental disorders. Music has a positive influence on individuals suffering from dementia by addressing physical, emotional, cognitive, and social deficits characteristic of patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Children and adolescents with behavioral problems and autism have also been shown to benefit significantly from music therapy.

Music is medicine. Currently, researchers are exploring how melodies can help regulate the heart and boost hormones. Patients who have undergone bone-marrow transplants report less pain and nausea if they take part in music therapy, which may also actually speed up the time it takes for the new marrow to start producing blood cells, say scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center. Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas including overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings.

Barbara Crowe, past president of the National Association for Music Therapy, explains, “Music therapy can make the difference between withdrawal and awareness, between isolation and interaction, between chronic pain and comfort, between demoralization and dignity.”

“Music might provide an alternative entry point to the brain, because it can unlock so many different doors into an injured or ill brain,” said Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm, and emotion (all components of music) engage different regions of the brain, and many of those same regions are also important in speech, movement, and social interaction. If a disease or trauma has disabled a brain region needed for such functions, music can sometimes get in through a back door and coax them out by another route. “In a sense, we’re using musical tools to particularly engage certain parts of the brain and then teach the brain new tricks, new tools, to overcome an impairment,” says Schlaug.

“We’re in the infancy,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic. During a surgery called deep brain stimulation, performed while patients with Parkinson’s disease are awake, Rezai and his team play classical compositions and measure the brain’s response to those notes. “We know music can calm, influence creativity, can energize. That’s great. But music’s role in recovering from disease is being ever more appreciated.”

Healing with music is not new, in fact it is one of the oldest healing arts. “Using music to help the ill has been employed for thousands of years, even though modern medicine is just starting to understand how it works,” said Dr. Claudius Conrad, a senior surgical resident at Harvard Medical School. Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras wrote of music as a healing influence which could affect health and behavior. The Greek physician Hippocrates administered musical treatments to his patients in 400 B.C.

And long before the Greeks, Egyptians and Sumerians were practicing music therapy. Frescos painted around 4,000 B.C. depict harp-playing priests using music for healing and prayer. “This gentle but powerful instrument goes to the deepest places of the body that need to be healed,” said Tami Briggs, a pioneer in Harp Therapy, who has played at the bedsides of hundreds of patients, including many at the Mayo Clinic. “I’m not a nurse, but I know enough about the monitors, and what I see is blood pressure usually goes down when I play, oxygenation rates go up. That’s connected to that more peaceful place, where they are taking deeper breaths.”

Music is a powerful catalyst for healing because it touches the very core of humanity, our souls. Plato wrote, “Music is most sovereign because rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.”

Music can heal, not only individuals, but also groups and societies. Music can create a sense of community and connectedness, and transcend differences. And beyond healing, the frequencies of music can alter our physical reality. We are just beginning to understand all the powerful, inspiring, and healing qualities of music.



The power of music